FreightWaves Flashback 1973: Piper Aircraft delivers its planes in 40 ft. containers

The many industries that make up the world of freight have undergone tremendous change over the past several decades. Each Friday, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

The following is an excerpt from the May 1973 edition of The Florida Journal of Commerce.

Piper Aircraft delivers its planes in 40 ft. containers

Piper Aircraft Corp. would like to see more of its containerized aircraft moving through the port of Jacksonville to its distributors around the world, for Piper is solidly sold on the ocean container and its Vero Beach plant has the additional aircraft customers to fill more of the big boxes.

This view was expressed by Victor C. McCollum, supervisor of Piper’s order and delivery department, in addressing the recent annual conference of the Containerization Institute at New York. McCollum participated in a shippers’ panel that discussed “The Container Shipment I Will Never Forget.”

The Piper executive also outlined how improvement in containerization could further benefit his company and its distributors abroad.

The container shipment that he will always remember, said McCollum, was Piper’s first one, five years ago, which was a success because it was thoroughly planned. “Since then,” McCollum told the international shippers, carriers and equipment service people attending the conference, “containerization has been very successful in many ways for our company.”

In telling how Piper got into containerization, McCollum recalled that the company had been called on repeatedly by a number of shipping lines that sought interest in using the container. Little headway was made, however, because the manufacturer felt that aircraft must be handled by special personnel, and in a manner its engineering department would approve, to forestall the occurrence of damage.

Problems and objections

“One of the biggest drawbacks,” McCollum noted, “was the fact that most container corporations were reluctant to supply us with a 40-foot container in which we could safely pack and ship aircraft, without additional charges to Piper.

“For example, many companies offered a container at so much per day, with stipulations that we would have to ship and utilize the container. Moreover, many companies said that they would engineer the tear-down and the packing of our aircraft for a price.

“We felt that this was not right. Nor did we feel that we should be charged for the use of the container — the very product that they were selling us.”

Two in a box

In the course of analyzing its container requirements, Piper had determined it needed a high cube, closed-top 40-footer. This would permit it to pack and ship two complete aircraft (with the wings detached) to its distributors in Europe.

“Eventually, the months of deliberation, talks and meetings with the steamship companies came to an end,” McCollum said, “when William Marquette, of Moore McCormack Line, and some of his associates met with us. They outlined a practical plan through which we could utilize containerization.”

McCollum explained the plan of action finally arrived at:

Loading Procedure

“We would disassemble our aircraft, skid the fuselage on a wooden skid, crate the wings, placing one fuselage and once wing side-by-side in a container. Then we would reverse the position of the second unit, utilizing the tapered fuselage so both units would fit in the 40-foot container. It meant that we had to drill 38 holes through the skids and floor of the container to properly secure the units for shipment.

Via Kearney, NJ

“We set up a plan for containers to go from Kearney, NJ, via railroad to our Vero Beach plant in Florida, and to return by the same method using the same railroads. We eliminated costs to the shipper or distributor for supplying the empty containers at our Vero Beach plant. We agreed no per diem or demurrage charges would be involved in our shipments.

“We also agreed that because of the light weight of our aircraft — 1,240 to 1,500 pounds — we would have to use cubic feet as a basis of ocean freight costs. We settled on 680 cubic feet per aircraft, or 1,360 cubic feet per 40-foot container for one shipment of two complete aircraft.

“If the distributor required or wished to ship his spare parts with the aircraft in the container, he would be charged accordingly. However, we did not feel that there would be enough room to ship many of the spare parts in the container, because many of the parts, if not fastened properly, could damage our aircraft during shipment.”

Pool at Ft. Pierce

Piper’s arrangements with the carrier also included maintenance of a container pool at Fort Pierce, Florida, for empty containers, “so we would always have available for our use the number of containers needed each month.”

In addition, because two aircraft were needed for a single container, pairing them together presented some problems in Piper’s production line. The company therefore revised its production schedule so as to manufacture two airplanes within a few days of each other to get them into the same container for shipment.

Two 180 H.P. Cherokees

The company’s first container shipment, which moved in January 1968, carried two 180-horsepower single-engine Cherokee models. The units had been knocked down, disassembled, skidded and ready to load. It took one and a half hours to load the 40-footer. The destination was Piper’s distributor in Sweden, Nyge-Aero.

A telex acknowledgement of receipt of the shipment in Sweden said: “Received first container freight last week. Shortest delivery time we ever got. Lowest delivery cost, and easy to handle. A success every way. From now on, we want all aircraft delivered in containers.”

Nuts and bolts

The second shipment to England brought a similar reaction — with one notable exception. Upon arrival in England, the container was delivered to the distributor on a flatbed trailer, instead of being loaded on an open chassis.

Said McCollum, “Because we had fastened the unit in the container by putting the nut on the bottom of the outside of the container floor, there was no way to unfasten the units within the container. Their telex said: ‘Run bolts from bottom up, put nut on top and we will be able to handle and release the shipment with ease.’”

McCollum added that although the unloading had presented a problem, identified with dry humor, the distributor was very happy to receive his units via the 40-foot containers.

Containerization was a “must” for Piper after the first shipment, McCollum reported. Requests for container shipments came in from distributors at various overseas locations. A Swiss distributor visited the agent in Sweden and immediately requested that all his shipments be containerized. Distributors even called each other to make arrangements to see the containerization of the product.

60 containers per year

In the first twelve months of 1968, the Vero Beach plant shipped out 53 containers of aircraft, McCollum noted. In 1969, a total of 114 containers were shipped. During 1970, 1971 and 1972, the firm shipped an average of 60 containers annually.

Potential of 295 more planes

If containerization were available to all parts of the world, McCollum pointed out, an additional 295 airplanes could have been shipped in containers but were not. These were delivered single-crated.

“The difficulties right now appear to be from the distributors who do not have container facilities. They are still trying to convince the steamship companies to utilize containerization in their parts of the world.”

McCollum also noted that Piper has had few problems with damage in using containers. The company also found ways to pack loose parts within the aircraft’s fuselage, so that they would be secure during shipments overseas. As a result, the company has shared very few claims on shipments due to improper packing or improper handling by the shipping companies or the railroads.

Seeking lower insurance rates

One of the biggest complaints from distributors, said McCollum, “is the fact that from 1968 until now they feel that containerization insurance rates by marine insurance companies should be lowered because of the minor and infrequent claims.”

Now via Jacksonville

Piper also reduced its cost of delivering aircraft abroad through a change in routing. “The steamship companies realized that the trip from Vero Beach to Kearney, NJ, was long and costly. Eventually, containerization facilities were moved from Norfolk, VA, and finally to Jacksonville. This has further reduced the cost of transportation for our customers to Europe and other countries.”